Sharing their time and expertise, biomeds travel the globe on life-changing missions

Volunteers Wanted: Biomeds willing to spend a minimum of 2 weeks abroad—or time at home—to repair, troubleshoot, or teach.

Location: Wherever needed. It could be a developing nation, a disaster-ravaged area, or your own garage repair center.

Payback: Perhaps the most rewarding experience of your life . . . at least until your next assignment.

Every day, people in developing areas around the world suffer because of medical-equipment shortages, deficiencies, and malfunctions. And every day, through a multitude of service groups, both secular and religious, BMETs and CEs like Don Slattery, CBET, MBA (Wausau, Wis) volunteer their services and expertise on “medical missions” to help relieve the distress.

As Slattery sees it, medical missions give him the opportunity to do the most he can with the special knowledge he has gained throughout his lifetime. An International Certification Commission-certified BMET with 27 years of hospital experience, Slattery recently completed his MBA to boot. “This all comes into play when you’re in a faraway place, looking at a piece of broken equipment that you maybe saw 10 years ago, no longer supported by the manufacturer, with no service manual, and are asked to fix it because it’s the best or only one that they have.”

Then again, Slattery notes, “There’s a unique sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to perform under less-than-ideal circumstances.” He has experienced this special satisfaction on mission trips with International Aid (IA of Spring Lake, Mich) for the last several years.

IA is a Christian-based relief and development agency. Its medical equipment training (MET) program links medical technicians in developing countries with needed knowledge and supplies to troubleshoot, repair, and maintain medical equipment.

Four years ago, Slattery went to Ghana, West Africa, to teach biomedical technology. Three years ago, he was in Manila, Philippines, for the same purpose. Last year and again this May, he went to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to inventory and repair hospital equipment in the surrounding province.

Matching Skills
Bill Teninty, CBET, is the director of IA’s MET program. He does not require specific certification when selecting biomeds for various medical missions. “I base assignments on training and experience, as recorded in their resumés, and try to fit the biomeds’ strengths with our areas of need for biomeds or instructors.”

Qualified applicants are added to the growing pool. “I have a file of biomed contacts willing to volunteer either for repair/troubleshooting or to teach. Where a need arises, I distribute an appeal via e-mail to everyone on the list. Selection for the assignment is made from those who respond.”

For IA missions, volunteers serve for a minimum of 2 weeks to cover their airfare. One biomed recently gave 3 months. “For our tsunami relief project in Banda Aceh, two biomed volunteers had their salaries covered by their hospitals that did not charge it against their vacation time. Good for them!”

Not every stateside biomed may realize how greatly his or her skills are appreciated around the world. Dave Wayne, MS, CBET, CEO of SE Medical Systems (Jonesboro, Ga) recalls how, one day in late May of 1998, he rendezvoused with Rev Jan Milton at the airport in Panama City, Panama. It was part of an Operation Renewed Hope (Fayetteville, NC) project to coordinate a donation of 15 cardiac/respiratory monitors for local hospitals.

The first monitor to arrive was in service at the local children’s hospital the next day. The monitor proved so useful that when the other 14 monitors arrived, the Panamanian Primera Dama (the First Lady of Panama) held a presentation ceremony.

The next year, Wayne and Reverend Jan were invited to the Panamanian embassy in Washington, DC. “We brought some equipment,” Wayne recalls, “and I showed them exactly how it worked with a simulator, so the expertise certainly added credibility to what we were doing.”

That credibility is crucial. No person sincerely interested in this type of work should be constrained by self-doubt. “There’s normally always a place for someone who has the interest to do medical mission work,” Wayne says. “Maybe they will be performing as an assistant at first, but there will be someone there who already has the experience.”

Project Open Hearts (POH of Denver) is a nonprofit organization that works with foreign medical staff to provide firsthand cardiac surgical training and assistance with diagnostic procedures. Since POH was founded by Rita Lenz in 1993, it has provided support in parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Palestine, Mongolia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Lou Schonder, CBET, director of medical programs of POH, emphasizes that a biomed’s practical know-how is key when medical team members are being selected.

These teams support mutually defined training programs initiated in partner countries. “A biomed’s experience, above all else, is evaluated when that person is being considered for team membership,” Schonder says. “Cardiac surgery and diagnostic procedures are very equipment intensive, and therefore BMETs are very critical in the success of POH programs.”

By recruiting experienced BMETs with a strong background in cardiac support, POH can best ensure that it follows through on its commitment to imparting self-sufficiency with all medical programs. POH’s biomeds offer medical technology and expertise that improves world health. By also addressing cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity while recruiting, POH’s mission is most efficiently shared.

A POH biomed’s responsibilities vary during any particular trip, and available resources are frequently unpredictable. As Schonder points out, “It can be difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to support devices without the correct spare parts, service manuals, etc. Many biomeds envision a situation where they will be repairing many devices during their trip, but that is not always the case. Sometimes, a biomed will be mostly evaluating equipment so a future team can perform repairs, or parts can be shipped enabling locals to repair the devices.

“A POH biomed also prepares devices for use by the POH surgical team: voltage/frequency conversion, verifying operation, and designating backup devices in case of equipment problems, etc,” Schonder says.

What if a biomed is eager to volunteer his or her services, but is not able to travel abroad? “The Internet has changed our support capabilities dramatically by enabling volunteers who would like to help to do so via e-mail and instant messaging from home. POH is quite eager to recruit these types of volunteers,” Schonder says.

Volunteers At Home
Dennis McCutcheon and Jim Moore started MedEquip Missions (Asheville, NC) in a basement and garage 11 years ago. MedEquip, which moved under the umbrella of Helps International Ministries 4 years ago, receives donated medical equipment. Volunteer biomeds test, calibrate, and repair the equipment in the United States before it is sent overseas.

Moore, incidentally, recently joined World Medical Missions/Samaritan’s Purse (Boone, NC) as biomedical director.

McCutcheon, a former physician assistant, has organized many trips to the field. In addition to their testing and repair role stateside, biomed technicians travel with the missions as two- or three-man teams for 1 to 2 weeks into Guatemala; the Dominican Republic; and soon to Bolivia, Honduras, and other countries.

“I know the need in the mission field for this kind of help is of utmost importance, truly lifesaving and gratifying beyond your wildest imaginings,” McCutcheon says. “The biomeds that I have taken to the field come back appreciative of what we have here in the States. I think they are better employees, better motivated.”

“I am looking for a hospital system that will allow their biomeds to take a week or two every other year to go do this humanitarian work and treat it as paid leave,” McCutcheon adds. “I believe the employing facility will see measurable benefits in their biomed departments.”

Finding Your Place
As Todd Poor sees it, a person who is serious about medical-mission work is going to find his or her place. A clinical engineer with Christian values, Poor says, “I was in biomed for almost 15 years until I heard about medical missions overseas.”

How did he find out? When Poor was at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis, missionaries in Haiti put out a request for someone who could work on some equipment at a hospital down there. As Poor recalls, with characteristic good humor, “For some reason my arm was up in the air and I agreed to go.”

After Poor realized he could make a difference, he never looked back. He has completed medical missions in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mongolia, to name a few places, for Samaritan’s Purse and MedEquip. He also works with Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism in Indianapolis.

Poor emphasizes that medical equipment that simply works is often what they are trying to obtain for the people they help. “In Guatemala,” Poor recounts, “we were trying to get them some warmers. They didn’t have warmers and Isolettes for premature babies. What they actually had done was bring in a conventional oven, placed it on ‘warm,’ and placed the baby inside to keep it warm.”

Alexander Boye-Doe, MD, an obstetrics/gynecology specialist in Lorain, Ohio, always wanted to do medical-mission work in his native Ghana. With that in mind, he began collecting old medical equipment from local facilities and stored it in a local warehouse. With the support of local civic groups, Boye-Doe had raised the money to ship equipment to Ghana. The problem, he started to tell his ultrasound assistant, was that he did not know what equipment was worth saving. “Dr Boye-Doe,” his assistant told him, “making medical equipment operable is what my husband, Ron, does for a living.”

Ronald D. Snodgrass, CBET, manager of facilities engineering at EMH Regional Healthcare System (Elyria, Ohio), reiterates the sentiment expressed by almost every biomed professional contacted for this article: “I didn’t want some foreign country to be a junkyard for our old medical equipment. I went through the equipment and told Dr Boye-Doe, ‘This you can take, this can be repaired, and this you don’t want to bother with.’ ”

Boye-Doe was appreciative and was not about to let Snodgrass’ expertise get away. He asked Snodgrass if he might be interested in accompanying him back to Ghana in 2 months. Snodgrass was interested. But what about funding? “We’ve got some,” Boye-Doe told Snodgrass. What they did not have, they held fund-raisers to obtain.

For 2 weeks in March 2004 and again in 2005, Snodgrass joined Boye-Doe’s medical mission team to Ghana. Donated equipment has included anesthesia machines, physiological monitors, ultrasound machines, and laparoscopic carts. The team has performed many physical examinations as well as a good number of surgical procedures.

What To Expect
How significant is the biomed link in the medical mission team? Woody Woodson, a businessman who began by supplying needs for orphanages and medical missions in Guatemala, says, “It is clear to me now that fixing equipment is the missing link in medical missions.”

Depending on the organization or the specific mission, airfare, housing, food, immunizations, and other expenses may or may not be covered. You may be expected to raise the necessary funds yourself. Your regular employer may or may not treat it as paid vacation leave time. Food, water, and housing? Each, at times, has been a concern for various volunteers. At other times, none of these are an issue.

Medical conditions can be risky at times, or may be “normal at home” conditions.

Anders Engstrom, who has worked as a biomed with IA, says that in the aftermath of the tsunami in Indonesia, travel was very hard between hospitals. “In some places you had nice hotels, while in others you found an empty bed in the hospital where you worked.”

He adds that in Indonesia last year, “While we performed the assessment and inventory of approximately 30 hospitals, we had to travel through areas held by the militia rebels.” Engstrom says they had to bribe their way from checkpoint to checkpoint. “These rebels now have a peace accord with the Indonesian government, so this year’s trip was rather safe.”

What do you need to take with you? Sometimes, you need little more than standard travel items. In remote areas, on the other hand, Rev Jan Milton of Operation Hope advises being ready with everything in camping gear, “especially an air mattress.”

Depending on the specific mission, your craftsmanship with your personal repair tools might be the very reason you are playing a part this time around.

You will be traveling with an experienced team member who can help advise you as you prepare for the mission. Or, another person in the organization will be able to answer any questions before you leave.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, the rewards are great. For Engstrom, those include “seeing the people you help smile and sincerely thank you for coming all around the world to help in their local community.”

The work of BMETs and CEs is often less publicized than the efforts of physicians in providing medical relief to developing and disaster-plagued areas. But the biomed’s skill and ingenuity in obtaining, maintaining, and repairing equipment is essential if medical assistance is to have a positive impact around the world.

David Tandet is a contributing writer for 24×7.

Lending a Hand
If you are interested in assisting on a medical mission, contact the organizations below. Some require specific skills, and most work on older equipment.

Assist International, PO Box 66396, Scotts Valley, CA 95067; (831) 438-4582; www.assistinternational.org; [email protected]. Assist International builds the capacity of hospitals in developing countries to more effectively serve the people in their area. It provides medical equipment and training for physicians and nursing staff. Biomeds need to be familiar with the older equipment they refurbish and repair, usually not more than one generation old. Biomeds need skills in installations and training on cardiac care monitors, central stations, ultrasounds, and ventilators.

CardioStart International, PO Box 530, Naperville, IL 60566; (630) 848-0088; www.cardiostart.com; [email protected] CardioStart International aspires to provide greater hope and support to families with children and adults afflicted with heart disease. CardioStart International provides free heart surgery and associated medical care to children and adults living in underserved regions of the world, irrespective of political position or religious creed.

International Aid, 17011 W Hickory, Spring Lake, MI 49456; (800) 968-7490; www.internationalaid.org; contact: Bill Teninty, director MET, [email protected] International Aid is a Christian relief and development agency that responds to Biblical mandates by providing and supporting solutions in health care. At the core of International Aid’s strengths is its commitment to worldwide medical missions.

MedEquip Missions, a ministry of Helps International Missions, 573 Fairview Rd, Asheville, NC 28803; (828) 277-3812; www.medequip.org; contact Dennis McCutcheon, director, [email protected] MedEquip Missions evaluates and repairs donated medical equipment. It also sends biomedical equipment technicians on short-term missions to meet the needs of active Christian hospitals.

Operation Renewed Hope PO Box 43242, Fayetteville, NC 28309-3242; (910) 987-5072; www.operationrenewedhope.org; [email protected]; contact Dave Wayne, SE Medical Systems LLC, (770) 210-6693, [email protected]. Operation Renewed Hope provides the opportunity for individuals to serve God through short-term and long-term missions throughout the world. Team members travel on mission trips together, transporting equipment and supplies that bring relief.

ORBIS International 520 Eighth Ave, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018; (646) 674-5511; www.orbis.org; contact Ismael Cordero, CBET, health care technology manager, [email protected]. ORBIS International is a nonprofit organization that strives to eliminate avoidable blindness and restore sight in the developing world. Biomeds may not need specialized knowledge of ophthalmic equipment to lend assistance on medical missions. ORBIS welcomes all inquiries.

Project Open Hearts, 106 Ardsley Rd, Upper Darby, PA 19082; (610) 529-4219; www.poh.org; contact Lou Schonder, director of medical programs of Project Open Hearts, [email protected] Project Open Hearts is a nonprofit organization that works with foreign medical staff to provide firsthand cardiac surgical, cardiac nursing training, and assistance with cardiac diagnostic procedures. Schonder emphasizes that a biomed’s practical know-how is key when medical team members are being selected.

Samaritan’s Purse, World Medical Mission, PO Box 3000, Boone, NC 28607; (828) 262-1980; www.samaritanspurse.org; contact Jim Moore, [email protected] World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse, serves Christian hospitals and clinics in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East by arranging short-term mission trips for physicians, dentists, and other personnel who volunteer for ministry overseas. They also provide and install critically needed equipment and supplies. —DT

All photographs used in this story are courtesy of MedEquip Missions, International Aid, and Ronald D. Snodgrass, CBET.